History & biography

Incredible India

Derrick Widmer

Incredible India

A Memoir 1965-2020

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Preface

“This is indeed India!”

“…. The land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of traditions …”.
Mark Twain

This sums up my motivation and inspiration to write this book. Ever since I set foot on this country an inexplicable fondness took birth within me. Over the years, this fondness became an infatuation. Since last few years I have been under a kind of urge and compulsion to transplant the horde of impressions of and encounters with several people, places and events in India. My memory garden became brightly illuminated whenever I browsed through the large collection of news-clippings and photographs I have been preserving over the years. When the story inside me wanted to breathe on its own, I started writing.

My installation as the first President of the Swiss-Indian Chamber of Commerce (SICC) was a key propeller for my deliberate interest in the affairs of India. This position granted me the privilege and honor to come in close proximity and touch with some of the most distinguished men and women of India from diverse streams of life. They, frankly, lit my desire and penchant to know more and more about India’s geopolitical, economic, cultural and social figuration. That was also a period noted for certain growing interest about India within the Swiss business and industry leaders. That provided me certain memorable opportunities to act as an active interlocutory between the Swiss and Indian interests.

My personal friendship with Ratan Tata stemming from our days at the Harvard Business School has been yet another contributory factor behind my inspiration to write this book. This friendship has remained staunch, and it even spread to his illustrious family.

This book, perhaps my last one, is dedicated to all those steadfast friends – particularly in India and Switzerland. It simply chronicles – not necessarily in a chronological or logical order some of those exceptional flashbacks as they came dancing from my memory garden. I started liking their randomness of appearance rather than out of a strictly controlled logical framework. This book targets anyone who is curious to know or see how an uninhibited foreigner unveils India during a tiny piece of time-horizon 1965-2020. On another front, it leaves behind the history of the Swiss-Indian Chamber of Commerce (SICC) in its early years, wherein destiny brought me into an active role.

My romance with India began soon after Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s tenure, moving through the terms of Indira Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Dr. Manmohan Singh and currently Narendra Damodardas Modi. I have seen India gradually turning from an insanely regulated to a reasonably liberal, market-driven economy and presently a leading global player.

I realize the window through which I have observed India is a tiny, narrow one. My trips to this country have taken me from New Delhi in the North, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kochi in the South, Mumbai in the West, Jaipur and Udaipur in the Northwest, and Patna in the East. Most of what I have heard and seen has been in the urban settings while the real India lives in her villages. Obviously what I have not seen or experienced is much more than what I have. This inadequacy has been, to a certain extent, mitigated by the enormous volume of oral information and guidance received from friends besides the information-mine available through scores of publications, articles and blogs – both print and electronic.

Certain communities and religious groups find special mention in this book – Parsis, Marwaris, Chettiars and Syrian Orthodox Christians. This is because of my intimate friendship and interactions with certain close friends hailing from these communities, and the curiosity and awe they generated within me to discover more of their community-texture within the highly diverse fabric of India.

Time spent in India has an extraordinary effect on me. It has indeed changed my mindset and vision. Shereen El Feki, a British journalist and author, once said: “If you really want to know yourself, start by writing a book.”

Finally I take comfort and courage from the words of Ernest Hemingway: “It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you are born that way.”



It All Began in 1 965!

When I was still a young lad, my father had a book titled “India the new world power” in his bookshelf. This book aroused my curiosity and I hoped visiting this country one day. My very first trip to India happened in January 1965. I was then a 29 year old Swiss lawyer and an army officer just departing from my post in Korea.

In 1964, I was stationed in Panmunjom (Korea) as a Swiss First Lieutenant of the Swiss delegation of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) on the 38th parallel. “Neutral” meant having not participated in the terrible Korean War (1950-1953) where at least 4.5 million people lost their lives.
Panmunjom was a tiny place of about 300 m in diameter. Half of this place was in North Korea and the other half in South Korea. One million heavily armed soldiers were guarding the border on both sides of the demilitarized zone. The so-called demilitarized zone ran 250 km from the east to the west of the peninsula. From the Swiss camp it took a four minutes’ walk to the blue painted negotiating barracks. These barracks are used by the UN Military Armistice Commission (MAC) and NNSC. Both the Swiss camp with nine officers during my time (today only five officers) and the blue barracks for negotiations at the center of Panmunjom are still there – even after almost 70 years when the Armistice Agreement (a peace contract that still does not exist) was signed. The existence of NNSC was part of the Armistice Agreement of 1953. The Swedish delegation had their camp near the Swiss one on the south side of the border on the 38th parallel. However, the camp of the communist delegations from Czechoslovakia and Poland were located about a mile north of Panmunjom and therefore in the northern part of the demilitarized zone. South Korea at that time was one of the poorest countries in the world. With a population of 52 million, today it is the 12th largest economy in the world!

In January 1965, I decided to leave beautiful and adventurous Korea and fly home, hopefully for new exciting assignments. The American Air Force generously allowed me to fly home for free with few impressive detours: Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam (war times), Thailand, India, Iran, Egypt and Greece. Air travel at that time was affordable only for the wealthy or business people. I was convinced that I would never be able to visit these countries again.



First Landing in India

On January 28, 1965 I wrote a letter (the 23rd one) while on outside posting to my parents on the stationary paper of the fancy Hotel Imperial in Delhi. The previous 22 letters I wrote were from Korea, and these letters were delivered via the US Army Post Office. Writing letters was the only possible way of
communication from Panmunjom (South Korea) to my family in Switzerland. Communication by Fax or Cell-phones or Internet did not exist at that time. My letter is quoted below:

“Yesterday evening I arrived at the International Airport in Delhi arriving from Bangkok. The flight in a large military air transport service (MATS) propeller plane landed in Delhi, and we had beautiful weather en-route. What a view from the cockpit! We flew over Calcutta and then along the Ganges plain. We were able to see on the right side the high mountain chain of the Himalayas. It has an average elevation of more than 6,100 m. This range is located in the north of the Indian subcontinent; it extends from Pakistan to Burma in a total length of approximately 2,300 km towards the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent. As you probably know, the 14 tallest peaks of the world are all located in the Himalayas including the highest and the most famous Mount Everest with an altitude of 8,485 m.

About an hour before landing in Delhi we saw on the horizon a mountain covered with snow. As the captain explained we were flying definitely at an altitude lower than that of the peak of the Mount Everest. After arrival and transfer to the luxurious Hotel Imperial, I was greeted – like all the guests – by two big beautifully decorated live elephants standing at the left and right sides of the entrance to the hotel. Each elephant was taken care of by a “mahout” (elephant supervisor). The style of this 1934-built hotel is a mixture of Victorian and Old Colonial.

On the other hand, Delhi seems to be incredibly poor and dirty. The vendors in the hotel and in the streets are disgustingly defiant and not very honest. What a difference to my last stay in Thailand! Today evening I decided to enjoy my dinner – relishing filet mignon in the elegant restaurant of the hotel with polished dark brown wooden walls – served by waiters with white gloves. I could still feel the old charm of colonial times. With music played by an orchestra and dancing women in their elegant saris in the background I got some of my first impressions about India. The average income of the population per day is about 20 Indian Rupees (40 Swiss Centimes)! Many millions in this country are unemployed or semi-employed. Three-fifth of the population cannot read or write. Life expectancy is about 40 years in contrast to almost 70 in the US and Europe. For the price of 10 US Dollars (USD) I made this afternoon a tour of New and Old Delhi in a car with a private chauffeur and a guide. Old Delhi had originally a medieval city-wall around it. People in general are dressed in incredibly beautiful colors. There are almost no women to be seen in western dresses and many men are wearing a thick, flowing beard and a colorful (dirty) turban. Delhi, compared to Calcutta, is apparently a cleaner and more hygienic city.

This morning I was at the US Embassy, a wonderful building. It was drafted by Edward D. Stone who also was designing the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. The world-famous architect Franklin Lloyd Wright (architect of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City) said at the opening day of this Embassy in 1959 that this is one of the finest buildings of the last 100 years. Tomorrow morning I intend to visit the famous Taj Mahal.

Unfortunately, I can continue my flight to Teheran only next Monday because only then a MATS plane is flying to Teheran. A flight connection of MATS is available only to Dhahran in Saudi Arabia where 5,000 Americans are residing. However, I am not at all interested in Saudi Arabia. As long as a MATS plane is flying, I am not allowed to continue my trip in a commercial US plane. Perhaps this time also I may be allowed to sit in the cabin of the pilots wherefrom the view is much better.”

India at that time was certainly not a world power as suggested in the book of my father. Back then, New Delhi appeared to me as a quiet and sleepy colonial city with about three million inhabitants (today 19 million). The total population of India at that time was about 400 million. Today, India has a population of 1,350 million, practically the same as of China (1,400 million). But China is three times bigger in area! India does not belong to Southeast Asia which includes countries in the east of India and in the south of China. It is the seventh largest most populated country (population per unit area) of the world.



The Generous Planning
of New Delhi

New Delhi was planned and built in the 20th century in a lavish style by the English architect Sir Edwin Luytens. At that time, he was the most famous English architect. He designed and built New Delhi over 20 years as an imperial Capital. The neo-classic stately buildings of the Central Government and the Parliament were also designed by Luytens. A large zone was earmarked for the location of foreign embassies (diplomatic enclave). Another large area was reserved for creating green spaces with lots of trees. Up to this day the government buildings, the diplomatic enclave and the green spaces have remained almost the same. The Swiss Embassy in New Delhi with its manicured lawns and beautiful gardens is an example of this generous planning. However, around this magnificent cardinal area an unbelievably shabby urban development has sprung up over the years – of busy, crowded and dusty big districts with massive apartment complexes, shopping centers, office towers and hotels.

Outside New Delhi, very large, modern, new satellite cities like Gurgaon (now named Gurugram) and Noida have come up today. Many well-known international companies have placed their Indian head offices in these satellite cities. Luytens worked in close cooperation with Herbert Baker and they were the main architects of several well-known monuments such as the famous India Gate with a 42 m high war memorial arch and the palace of the viceroy (a ruler exercising authority in a colony on behalf of the sovereign). Lord Louis Mountbatten resided there as the last viceroy. He had close relations with his nephew Prince Philippe and his son Prince Charles. In 1979, the former Admiral of the Fleet was murdered in Ireland by a terrorist group called the Provisional Irish Republic Army. This huge palace of the viceroy (now called Rashtrapati Bhavan) with 340 rooms was designed to host the Maharajas coming from their kingdoms to visit Delhi, and also to demonstrate the mighty power of the British Empire. These Maharajas coming to pay tribute to the viceroy were received with gun salutes from canons – the number varying according to their rank of their importance. After the declaration of independence in 1947, this palace serves as the residence of incumbent President of India who is the constitutional Head of the Nation.



The Milieu of Old Delhi

Old Delhi (earlier known as Shajahanabad) was founded as a walled city (containing the Red Fort and Chandni Chowk) in 1639-48 by Emperor Shah Jahan. It remained the Capital of the Mogul Empire until the middle of the 19th century. Old Delhi was once known for its Islamic architecture. Jama Masjid is one of the examples standing tall in the midst of the city. Old Delhi is also known for its street food and shopping locations. The first wholesale market of Old Delhi opened as the hardware market in Chawri Bazar in 1840, the next wholesale market was that of dry fruits, spices and herbs at Khari Baoli opening in 1850. The Phool Mandi (Flower Market) of Daryaganj was established in 1869. Today the old city is overpopulated and gives a poor impression. It is almost impossible to walk down the sidewalks of Old Delhi. Shops and food carts spill out on to the sidewalks.

What remains in my memory of the old city tour in January 1965 are the invigorating fragrance of jasmine flowers, the exhaust gases emitted by three-wheeled yellow painted tuk-tuk taxis (produced by the Bajaj company) that roared around the city and their resolutely blaring horns, poor quality roads and a lot of dust. I was struck by the unbelievable level of poverty. Women in their saris walked straight with a dignified attitude. They did not look straight into the eyes of a foreigner. Apparently, many rules and taboos existed (and perhaps still exist) for women in this country. I realized immediately that
this was not a “man’s land” like what I had experienced in Korea and Southeast Asia. This was a country where kissing in public was frowned upon and was forbidden in movies. In rural Southern India, holding hands and kissing in public are spurned
even today.



The Immortal Taj Mahal

As mentioned in my 23rd letter to my parents from Delhi (the former 22 letters were sent from South Korea), next morning I took the luxury train to Agra. The city is about 200 km away from Delhi and lies on the banks of the river Yamuna. Agra had been, with some interruptions, the Capital of the Mogul Empire from 1526-1648 – before Emperor Shah Jahan shifted it to Old Delhi (Shahjahanabad). The castle fortress of the Grand Mogul Akbar still exists and also does the palace of Shah Jahan.

The most famous and exquisite structure in Agra is of course the Taj Mahal –one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Taj Mahal was built in honour of Mumtaz Mahal – Shah Jahan’s favorite wife, making it the symbol of undying love. Born as Arjumand Banu Begum into Persian nobility in 1593, there is little known of Mumtaz’s early life before she became one of the most celebrated queens in Indian history.

The mausoleum was built with wonderful white marble and red sandstone. 28 different types of precious and semi-precious stones were laid into the white marble. This tomb has 22 domes and has 40 m high minarets at the end of the surrounding walls. It is certainly a masterpiece of Indo-Islamic art. The Taj Mahal as well as the Red Fort in Agra are memorials of the World Heritage Sites declared by the UNESCO since 1983.

I arrived at the 18 hectares (ha) large park of the Taj Mahal with cypresses and well-maintained pathways and ponds. All of a sudden I felt uncomfortable. My stomach started to hurt me and I felt dizzy. With the last reserve of strength, I walked towards the wonderful Taj Mahal and took some pictures of the mausoleum. I had a feeling that I might be seeing the Taj Mahal for the last time in my life and going to die. I was convinced that in my lifetime I would never see this fantastic building again. As things were getting worse, I was no more in a position to explore the Taj inside and rushed back in a cab to the train station. In the train I could not sit but only lie down with high fever and stomach problems. The only thing I remember is a friendly train-attendant who covered me up with a woolen blanket. Arriving back in Delhi in the elegant Hotel Imperial I was only able to cry and moan. I was thinking of the end of my young life, particularly in spite of all the dangers and sicknesses I overcame during the last 10 months in Korea. When at 3:00 a.m. during the night a trustworthy tall Sikh doctor with a turban arrived in my room I became optimistic again. He diagnosed meat poisoning from the good-tasting filet mignon I had the night before. He gave me some strong medication that I had to drink and swallow for the next three days – eating almost nothing.



Departing Delhi After My First Visit


In the afternoon of the following day, I stood up without eating anything, and 24 hours later I felt fit enough to leave this “problematic” country. I had received the travel orders (military tickets for US troops or sponsored guests) before my excursion to Agra at the American Embassy. With my luggage and my packed-up Buddha (bought in Bangkok) I went punctually to the Delhi airport in my Swiss military uniform where a C-130-Hercules-Transport Plane (Lockheed) was ready for departure for Teheran and was awaiting me. The three pilots were standing casually next to the airplane enjoying the morning sun expecting their only passenger. They explained that they were on their return flight from Saigon (Vietnam) where they brought material for the US troops and therefore the plane was completely empty. However, they were a bit skeptical about my wooden box. They calmed down after I explained that I had bought an antique Buddha in Thailand which I smuggled – wrapped in my rain coat and held it under my arm in spite of the heavy weight – through the customs in Bangkok. The Delhi hotel employees had packed it up carefully in a wooden box. The crew gave me a seat in the large cockpit on the way to Iran. Again, I had a fantastic view as these propeller-driven planes cannot fly at very high altitudes. Having eaten practically nothing for 48 hours I was very hungry, and was most happy to have a big, good dinner at the Royal Hotel Hilton in Teheran. After this “failed” start as a tourist in India, I was convinced that I would never want to go back to this underdeveloped poor country where I got so sick.

In the 1960s and 1970s, no Western company invested or traded in China and practically nothing or very little in India. Both China and India at that time were absolutely a no-go for major investors. However, the so-called Asian Tiger Countries (Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and South Korea) and particularly industrialized Japan (second largest economy in the world before China took this position) were of significant importance for trade and industrial investments.

Format: 17 x 23.5 cm
Number of Pages: 162
ISBN: 978-3-99107-842-5
Release Date: 01.07.2021
GBP 22,90